In school students spend time studying the significance of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, more communities transitioned from rural agrarian farms to urban industrialized societies thanks to advancements in machinery and transportation. The first revolution shaped the urban and rural constructs of societies we're familiar with today.

The second industrial revolution expanded upon the first through technological innovation drastically raising standards of living. Think phones, electricity and combustion engines.

The third industrial revolution that commenced in the 1980's brought us personal computers, the internet and propelled industry and everyday life into the digital era.

Each revolution - arguably - made life better changing the way we go about our days at home and at work. With each new modern convenience we can accomplish more in a day, in a year and in a career.

The fourth industrial revolution will challenge us yet again but this time it will extend far beyond economic implications and will inherently change the meaning of work and what it means to be a productive member of society.

The fourth industrial revolution ('4IR') or as some call it, Industry 4.0, will shorten the gap between science fiction and reality.

In order to succeed in 4IR, companies will need to embrace new technologies while empowering their workforce. Governments will also need to keep regulation on pace with deployment.

This new era presents a plethora of challenges but also lots of new remarkable breakthroughs to look forward to.

Behold, the Fourth Industrial Revolution

4IR is characterized by a confluence of disruptive technologies bringing together the digital, physical and biological worlds.

The term was popularized by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab predicts we will start to see nodes of production chains make decisions on their own as industries begin to integrate IoT and AI into their regular operations.

For most of us, this means our jobs will evolve as well and require more analytics, collaboration and creativity.

According to Accenture, the three major trends of 4IR include digitization, industrialization and optimization.

Digital technologies will transform operations in all sectors. The most agile companies are already integrating these technologies into their operations from the factory floor to the storefront.

Companies that can leverage data and business intelligence to drive operational efficiencies will enjoy the most growth in 4IR. Others that fall short and cannot meet exceedingly difficult customer expectations will likely suffer grave consequences.

Pivotal technologies

IoT and cyber-physical systems will be the core technologies behind 4IR. Objects equipped with sensors and internet connectivity will collect and analyze unprecedented levels of data. Key components of IoT devices include chips, transducers and memory components.

The second layer of 4IR technologies will enable smart devices (IoT). This includes user interfaces, artificial intelligence and big data analytics. These technologies represent where the rubber meets the road. Where data derived from devices can be turned into actionable insights to make things more efficient, cleaner and cost effective.

Actual applications make the third layer. These applications span from wearable devices to smart buildings to autonomous vehicles. As consumers we have already become accustomed to many of these applications. In 4IR they will become more pervasive and ingrained in our everyday lives.

Potential inequality

One of the major risks of 4IR is widespread income inequality. If companies do not equip their employees to adapt to new methods of business and governments do not properly regulate new technologies, a small percentage of workers will realize a vast majority of the gains.

As automation renders certain jobs obsolete, workers will need access to low cost training resources that universities, employers and governments need to make a concerted effort to provide.

Some view 4IR as the end of human labor and propose universal basic income (UBI) as a solution. Others think this outlook vastly exaggerates the impact of automation on work and that workers will adapt and assume different types of jobs.

Environmental promise

As we move into 4IR, we should focus intensely on efficiencies that can improve our environment. With increased transparency, efficiency and connectivity industries will be able drive waste (and CO2 emissions) out of their supply chains and source more sustainable materials.

According to the popular economic theory of the Kuznets Curve, pre-industrial countries pollute more as they develop and GDP increases. With increased manufacturing, vehicles and industrial waste, rapidly developing countries historically have degraded their environments. However, as GDP continues to increase, countries then hit a turning point in which they improve their relationship with the environment and emissions start to fall. With extra income, people are generally willing to pay more for cleaner air and water.

What if 4IR can help developing economies skip environmental degradation as they grow? With smart city planning, alternative energy sources and big data this industrial revolution may spare billions of people and the environment years of environmental catastrophe.

Breaking the linear mold

Many companies fall victim to complacency because their old strategies made them successful in the past. Thus, culture often eats strategy.

In his book Schwab states: “The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril. My concern, however, is that decision makers are too often caught in traditional, linear (and non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.”

In order for people to thrive in 4IR, companies and governments will need to think long-term, lead creatively and set policies conducive for success under these rapidly evolving conditions.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash.

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